Words by Christine VanDyk
Photos by Carlos Palacios
After a morning battling the waves, the surfers returned to the shore. Wrung out and weary, they shook the sand from their tangled hair and tossed their boards into the backs of old Jeep Wranglers. They had golden tans from a life in the sun and a laid-back vibe that seemed effortlessly cool. Most of all, they were unbelievably fit.
“Born in Hawaii and raised in Florida, I spent my life near the ocean,” Kanoa Greene said. “And like every beach baby, I dreamed of riding my own waves, especially after hearing the stories of my Uncle Lopaka, a legendary surfer with a surf spot named after him on Oahu.”
But Kanoa never tried.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, “because the people on those boards didn’t look like me. No one ever said it, but I always thought, Fat girls can’t surf!”
The problem was the pop-up. With both hands on the rails of the board, you have to push your butt into the air and jump your body into a crouched position—all while balancing on a sliver of fiberglass.
“It’s hard for anyone,” Kanoa says, “but seemingly impossible for someone my size.”
She was “hyperaware” of her body, self-conscious of how she looked and what she could do—until she almost went blind.
A former opera singer, Kanoa was living in New York City when what she thought would be a routine surgery left her blind in one eye.
“It took me losing my sight to gain vision,” she said. “I had to ask myself what really mattered. When I lost something I was so reliant on, I decided I needed to build my body into something I could always rely on.”
Partially blind, she left her corporate career and moved home to Hawaii where life was slower and she could heal. That’s when she began to hike and paddleboard and challenge herself.
“I learned I could do more than I’d ever thought,” Kanoa said. “My body was amazing, and I couldn’t care less what it looked like, only what it could do.”
Bolstered by her new-found strength, she decided to try surfing and began to look for the basics: gear and know-how.
“I knew the pop-up would be challenging, so I did burpees to mimic the motion,” Kanoa said. “However, I also wanted to look cute. I knew most surf shops wouldn’t have my size, but I thought I could find something online—I couldn’t. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks: women like me don’t surf.”
It would be another two years before Kanoa found herself on a board.
That was when a surf company introducing a size-inclusive line noticed her Instagram. Amidst all the sweaty workouts, food chats, and cheerful inspiration, she talked about her desire to surf.
“Even with all I’d accomplished, it was still the dream,” she said. “I thought, If I can do this, I can do anything.”
So, she flew to Costa Rica for a photo shoot that included would-be surfers of all shapes and sizes.
“I said yes because someone was going to make a suit for girls like me,” Kanoa recalls. “Plus, I was finally going to learn to surf.”
It took her five days of struggling with techniques suited for smaller bodies, and falling again and again. On the last day, she said “Screw it—I’m doing this my way.” With her own moves and a larger board, she was finally hanging ten.
Kanoa has since become the face of many plus-size brands, modeling and advising companies around the globe. Most recently, she partnered with Fabletics as a plus-size fitness coach shown in active movement.
“It’s an important distinction,” she says, “because even body-positive brands often only show larger shapes posing in active wear, not actually working out. The decision has had some haters, but overall the response has been extremely positive.”
Today Kanoa is curating a series of plus-size adventures which will include a surf retreat. It will feature instructors who are comfortable teaching larger body types, longboards for stability, and of course, cute rash guards so each athlete looks the part. Future trips are in the works for snowboarding, hiking, and stand-up paddleboarding.
“I want people to discover what they can do with their bodies today, and to give themselves permission to start the journey now,” she says.
Kanoa’s own journey is still in progress.
“I haven’t stopped showing up,” she says. “Will I still be here in a year, even if I haven’t reached all my goals? Yeah, I will. I’ve learned that success is possible, even when it’s not easy. There’s no reason big girls can’t lead big lives.”